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Seeking to counteract the decrease in labor
Chile: Mechanization of cherry orchards in O'Higgins
Chile is the leading exporter of cherries in the world. For this reason its efficiency in the production and harvest is key to maintaining this privileged position in the international markets.
In an effort to improve working conditions, a group of scientists from the Universidad Católica has been working for more than half a decade to develop mechanized vegetable gardens that substantially facilitate working conditions. This year they will have their first major commercial crop in the O'Higgins region.
Marlene Ayala, a specialist in physiology and cherry production at PUC and head of the project, says that "the main objective is to automate harvesting and any other work that involves the management and use of labor, both to make more precise and efficient work, and to increase the harvesters' well-being," he emphasizes.
The cherry tree are between 3.5 to 4.0 meters in height, which forces the harvesters to use ladders and to be exposed to high temperatures, since harvesting is carried out during the spring and summer months.
"To establish a head-high orchard what we do is guide the tree with different architectures, so that its trunk and branches reach the desired shape and height according to the driving system. This means knowing the variety is being produced with the rootstock that best suits it," says Ayala.
"A driving system for cherry trees requires modulating the vigor of the species to produce smaller, more productive trees that ideally start production early," says Ayala.
The researcher adds that, this year, the first commercial harvest of importance to evaluate the productivity of the systems, as well as labor force harvest efficiency, will be obtained from the experimental orchard.
Currently the O'Higgins region has three orchards or demonstration units. One in Rancagua, another in Codegua, and they are working on a third in San Francisco de Mostazal.
This project seeks to counteract the drop in the region's workforce. "People no longer want to work in the countryside, they prefer to work in the service sector outside the region, in activities that require less physical effort and are more valued socially. We are trying to decrease physical effort and accident rates. The harvester can fall from ladders, especially on very large trees, or suffer some physical problem that tires them, or simply decide not to work more in the fields. This is why it is necessary to encourage them by implementing changes in orchards' designs, and introducing mechanization to alleviate strenuous work such as harvesting ", says Marlene Ayala.
Producers are the most happy with this initiative. Rodrigo Belmar, Production Manager at Agricola Valle Largo, says: "At this moment we have problems getting workers, we have fewer people each year, so today it is vital that those few people can give the best performance possible by optimizing their time, so the theme of walkable orchards is a very good option to counter the problem of labor shortage, "he says.
This will also help improve harvester wages because, by using smaller trees, it is easier and faster to harvest these; there are more fruits per unit of time in the harvest, which makes the work more expeditious and, in the end, increases efficiency because the worker can harvest more kilos in less time and obtain a greater return at the end of the day.
The current project is funded by the O'Higgins' Regional Government through the Competitiveness Innovation Fund (FIC). "We as the main producing and exporting region of cherries have decided to finance this type of research, since, on the one hand, it will have a significant economic impact and, on the other, safeguard the safety of our fruit workers," said the Mayor of the O'Higgins Region, Pablo Silva Amaya.
The world looks at Chile through the cherry tree
During the last few weeks the Asia Fruit Congress was held in Hong Kong, an event that Chilean cherry representatives took advantage of to announce an historic investment of 5 million dollars exclusively for this fruit. In 2016, its export reached 100 thousand tons, and is projected that for 2020 about 120 thousand tons will be sold abroad.
For this reason, the development and improvement of cherry production in the country draws attention abroad. Last year this project, led by the Universidad Catolica academics, occupied space in the international press. Spanish media even called it the "Cerezos Bonsai" that "is revolutionizing the fruit's production in Chile.
This innovation seeks to ensure that Chile not only maintains itself as the prime exporter of this distinguished fruit, par excellence, but also improves the quality of life of the workers who produce it and, along with them, increases production yields - ideals which have become an example for the worldwide development of fruit production.
Publication date: 9/26/2017
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